Two of the more critical hallmarks that define the influenza virus are:
- Constantly evolving – the non-human, highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, or bird flu, is just one example of an influenza virus with pandemic potential. It’s a non-human virus, which means there is little to no immunity against it among people. Even though human infections are rare, if the virus were to evolve in a way that it could infect humans, and experts believe it’s capable of such evolution, it could result in a global pandemic.
- Easily transmitted – the flu is a highly contagious disease that is very easily transmitted from person to person (from as far as 6 feet away). While the first step to prevention is getting vaccinated, everyday precautions are also important.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, the impact of influenza is relatively benign because the populations have developed a level of immunity to the virus. And yet, it is estimated that between 1 and 1.5 million people each year die of influenza or its related complications. As a result, influenza pandemics are considered to be one of the most serious threats to the welfare of the global population.
What is a flu pandemic?
A pandemic is an epidemic of infection disease that spreads through human populations across a large area (sometimes worldwide). Over the last 300 years, there have been 10 major influenza pandemics. The Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, where 30% of the world’s population fell ill and between 50 and 100 million people died, is considered the most severe.
One important factor in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was the advances in modern transportation, which in the beginning of the 20th century offered a global advantage to the flu virus. The Spanish Flu virus was very quickly spread around the world by infected crew members and passengers on ships and trains.
How travelers contribute to the spread of flu
Recently, the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2002-2003, the Bird Flu in 2008, and the Swine Flu in 2009 served to demonstrate the quick-spreading power of the influenza virus through the convenience and ubiquity of global air travel.
Travel can be a big contributor to the global spread of the flu for a number of reasons:
- Travers are typically crowded together in tight spaces like airport lounges, trains, and buses
- The virus can remain ‘live’ on surfaces such as door handles, tray tables, and seats for up to two hours
- Those who are already infected may not experience symptoms for up to two days – so a traveler can be contagious long before they feel ill and isolate themselves
- Once symptoms develop, there is often a ‘denial phase’ in which the infected individual will continue their travel, particularly if they are returning home
An infected individual at the ‘acceptance phase’ of the illness, is more likely to cancel outbound travel, but nearly all travelers will do the utmost, even breaking quarantine, to return home when they are sick.
The global transportation system is a major gateway that allows the virus to spread far faster at the global level than the regional level. Experts believe that the next influenza pandemic could be very severe and the widespread illness and absenteeism could cause cascading disruptions to our social and economic systems.
Important steps to prevent flu transmission
It’s important to understand that the flu is a global disease, so wherever you go this flu season protecting yourself and others is critical to staying healthy.
1. The first and number one prevention step is to get vaccinated.
Vaccines are an important tool for preventing the flu and flu vaccines are widely available in the U.S.
During your trip, the following preventative steps are simply good health measures to take care of yourself and keep others well too:
- Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze
- Wash your hands often with soap and water (or an alcohol-based solution if soap and water are unavailable)
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as this is how germs spread easily
- Avoid close contact with others who are sick
- Travel only when you feel well and have no symptoms of illness
- Limit contact with others if you are sick
People at highest risk for serious flu complications
It’s important to recognize that not everyone gets the vaccine and some people are at a greater risk of having serious complications. Those include:
- Children younger than 5, but especially kids younger than 2 years old
- Adults age 65 or older
- Pregnant women
- People with medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease, endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus), and others
Above all, the people at the highest risk for developing serious complications due to the flu are the ones also highly encouraged to get vaccinated.
See the CDC recommendations for the 2012-2013 Influenza Season for additional information.
Facts about Travel Insurance and the Flu
As flu season approaches, travelers often ask us whether their travel insurance protects them in case of the flu.
Essentially, there are three coverages that may help travelers infected with the flu:
- Pre-trip cancellation – to cancel your trip prior to departure
- Post-departure trip interruption – to abandon your trip and return home early
- Travel medical – to get medical care outside your health insurance network
With your travel insurance plan, the illness must be disabling enough to make a reasonable person cancel their trip – and that illness must be verified by a medical doctor who must say you are too ill to travel.
If you cannot be examined by a medical doctor before you cancel your trip, some travel insurance plans allow you a 72-hour window to accomplish the examination, but the result must still be the same: the physician must certify that you are too ill to travel.
As proof of the loss, you will be expected to show the physician’s report, so be sure to get a couple of copies.
See How to find medical care on my trip for additional information.